Jenny Lewis has never had trouble expressing herself. On Joy’All’s “Puppy and a Truck,” she sings, “My 40s are kicking my ass … and handing them to me in a margarita glass.” Even before she split with her indie-rock group Rilo Kiley a decade ago, she’d assumed a persona that’s one part Dusty Springfield, another part Linda Ronstadt, and one more of Mary Richards (shake gently and sprinkle in a dash of Gram Parsons to taste.) She has always sounded a little down on her luck, and she’s always sounded OK with it.
Joy’All is the latest volume in an ongoing drama we might call The Many Loves and Losses of Jenny Lewis. She’s a few years older, just as wise, and as clever as always. Where she spent her 20s lamenting the good that won’t come out of her with Rilo Kiley and her 30s rising up with fists as a solo artist, she’s spent her 40s so far flirting with new wave (the self-titled 2016 album by Nice as Fuck), AM radio pop rock (2019’s On the Line), and now countryish pop rock on Joy’All. On the Line was Lewis’ best album since her 2006 solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, full of memorable melodies, cutting lyrics, and an easygoing, natural vibe. She professed that while she used to be a hot mess (or a “Party Clown”), she was kind of getting over it (other than all the Red Bull and Hennessey). Her 40s were treating her well for the most part.
That charm continues on Joy’All, but it’s somehow a little looser. She’s still full of amusing turns of phrase (“I’m not a psycho/I’m just trying to get laid” on “Psychos” and “I’m not paranoid/But I’m not not” on “Giddy Up”), and she still ruminates on midnight confessions she confessed many midnights ago. There’s a longing and a nostalgia that threads through Joy’All, as Lewis attempts (and often fails at) romance, and it’s often veiled with a smile. “I ain’t got no kids,” she sings on “Puppy and a Truck” concluding “I got a puppy and a truck and some unconditional love.”
Coupled with the album’s Music City vibes (think Elvis Country or Nashville Skyline but with silkier vocals) Lewis’ wit and candor find more leg room on Joy’All than on previous albums. “I’m not a toy y’all, I’ve got heart,” she sings between claps on the soulful title track, and she sounds like she means it. Producer-guitarist Dave Cobb (Brandi Carlile, the Highwomen) and a group of musicians that includes multi-instrumentalist John Brion, steel guitarist Greg Leisz, and Lucius’ Jess Wolfe on backing vocals, among others, turn Lewis’ compositions into robust country rockers.
The recipe works especially well in the easy groove of “Apples and Oranges,” which adds extra beauty and pain to Lewis’ pining when she sings, “He’s hot and he’s cool/He just isn’t you.” And the country-rock feeling complements the album’s best songs: When Lewis sings about screaming “I want you back” on “Essence of Life,” the steel guitar wails, too, and on the upbeat “Cherry Baby,” they create a sweet yacht-rock texture that makes “I fall in love too easily with anyone who touches me, fucks with me” almost suitable for radio. By the time she sings, “A chain of tears leads me back to you” (country songwriting at its core) on the springy final track, “Chain of Tears,” and the album ends (after only 32 minutes) there’s a feeling of positivity about the album that makes you want to play it again.
Joy’All is the sound of a woman who has accepted herself — her past and her present — and now just wants to cut loose. Her broken heart still bears bruises, but it has healed enough to keep her moving. When life hands Lewis lemons now, she makes Lynchburg lemonade.